Thursday, August 16, 2012

`All Bounds Seem to Be Infinitely Removed'

As kids we dug up bunches of spearmint in the woods, carried them in buckets to the garden and planted them along the fence. The scent is cool and bracing, and we crushed the leaves and put them in ice tea, though the flavor never lives up to the promise of the fragrance. Spearmint roots and stolons are tough and rapacious. Soon the plants threatened to choke the carrots and take over the garden, and we learned first-hand that spearmint is tenacious. This served as our introduction to invasive species and the limits of plant husbandry in the face of perfect adaptation, but not for human purposes. 

Going in the other direction, we often saw irises, tulips and lilies growing in the woods and fields behind the house, where neighbors had dumped yard waste. Cultivated flowers tend to be bigger and showier than wild species, and so are conspicuous among the plain-looking grasses and sedges of a Northern landscape. People are messy when dealing with the natural world, which isn’t always a bad thing. Thoreau writes in his journal one hundred fifty-six years ago today, on Aug. 16, 1856: 

“What a variety of old garden herbs-- mints, etc.-- are naturalized along an old settled road, like this to Boston which the British travelled! And then there is the site, apparently, of an old garden by the tanyard, where the spearmint grows so rankly. I am intoxicated with the fragrance. Though I find only one new plant (the cassia), yet old acquaintances grow so rankly, and the spearmint intoxicates me so, that I am bewildered, as it were by a variety of new things. An infinite novelty.” 

How good to know Thoreau ever conceded to the occasional bout of intoxication, though I suspect “infinite novelty,” not the scent of spearmint, was the true intoxicant. The Thoreau I prize is not the cranky malcontent but the fellow who gets excited over a roadside patch of weeds and turns his excitement into memorable prose. The journal entry continues: 

“All the roadside is the site of an old garden where fragrant herbs have become naturalized,--hounds-tongue, bergamot, spearmint, elecampane, etc. I see even the tiger lily, with its bulbs, growing by the roadside far from houses (near Leighton’s graveyard). I think I have found many new plants, and am surprised when I can reckon but one. A little distance from my ordinary walk and a little variety in the growth or luxuriance will produce this illusion. By the discovery of one new plant all bounds seem to be infinitely removed.” 

Thoreau is kin, here, to Andrew Marvell, who died on this date in 1678. In “The Garden” he writes: 

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!”

1 comment:

John Field said...

Dear Patrick,

I know that this is wrong place to do this but I can't see an email address for you here.

I wondered whether you would be prepared to link to my blog, Poor Rude Lines (

My blog does attempt to link life with (poetry) books, so there's some shared ground.